Mar 6, 2017; San Antonio, TX, USA; Houston Rockets shooting guard J. Harden (13) drives to the basket while guarded by Spurs shooting guard D. Green (14) during the second half. Mandatory Credit: S. Im-USA TODAY Sports
The San Antonio Spurs are the best franchise in sports over the past 20 years, but they’re not unbeatable. The Houston Rockets can advance past the second round if they make sure to do a few things right.
NBA fans are fond of the saying, “defense wins championships.” The idea behind it is that teams can’t just cherry pick and take possessions off on defense if they truly want to win. There’s some sentiment to it, but the saying will be pushed to its limits during the upcoming series between the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs.
During the regular season, the Spurs boasted the best defense in the league, holding teams to under 100 points per game. Their defense has been even better in the playoffs thus far, nothing out of the ordinary for a Gregg Popovich team. Their offense, however, ran right in the middle of the pack–14th in points per game.
The Rockets scored more than any team other than the Golden State Warriors over the course of the regular season. They averaged over 115 points per game, one of the best offenses in history. Their defense was average at best, though, posting the 18th best defensive rating.
With those things considered, this second round matchup will force the “defense wins championships” idea to its limits. The teams proved to be evenly matched for most of the regular season, and that shouldn’t change too much for the playoffs. The Spurs are a great team, but there are three primary things the Rockets could do slow them down. If they get all three objectives right, they’ll have another Western Conference Finals appearance under their belt.
Next: 1. Speed up the pace
Nov 12, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard E. Gordon (10) flies in for a slam dunk against the Spurs during the fourth quarter at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY
The Spurs want to play slow basketball and the Rockets want to play fast. Neither team will be likely to win playing at the other’s normal pace.
Every team Mike D’Antoni has ever coached has been fast. His perfect idea of basketball is to run and gun, pushing for fast breaks and quick threes. This season, the Houston Rockets have fit that bill perfectly. They played at the third fastest pace in the regular season, averaging over 102 possessions per game.
James Harden and company launched up a record-setting number of threes per game and looked to score in transition as often as possible. They scored over 14% of their total points in the fast break, the sixth highest mark in the league.
The Spurs are just the opposite. They like to slow the ball down and run half court sets most of the time. Only three teams in the regular season played at a slower pace than the Spurs this season.
Popovich’s teams have always slowed things down a bit, but he’s forced to do so this season because of several aging players getting significant minutes. Pau Gasol and Tony Parker, for how great they are at basketball, are the slowest they’ve ever been. If the Rockets can take advantage of that and wear them out in transition, they’ll likely win the series. If San Antonio forces Houston to play slow basketball, though, it won’t go well for Rockets fans.
Next: 2. Get Kawhi in foul trouble
Nov 9, 2016; USA; Houston Rockets point guard James Harden drives while guarded by San Antonio forward K.Leonard (2) at AT&T Center. The Rockets won 101-99. Credit: S.I.-USA TODAY Sports
Kawhi Leonard will be the best defender on the floor this series, but he won’t have the same effect if he gets in foul trouble.
When playing against a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, it’s a good idea to focus offensive efforts on avoiding him. One-on-one, Kawhi Leonard can stop just about any player in the league. Even though James Harden played well overall against him throughout the regular season, even he was stopped by the Klaw when it mattered most in the fourth game.
First of all, if Harden is on the floor and Leonard isn’t guarding him, that should be an easy money for Houston. They’ll simply Kawhisolate him–have who he’s guarding stand in the corner spotting up for a three while James Harden shakes and bakes his way to the rim. If Kawhi leaves his man to play help defense, somebody’s getting a wide open three. If he doesn’t, well, nobody else on the Spurs can stop the Beard from getting to the cup.
Pop should be well aware of that conundrum, though, and will likely have Leonard hounding Harden all over the floor. If that’s the case, foul trouble could be the only thing that loosens his grip on Houston’s offense. Luckily, nobody in the NBA is better at drawing contact than the Beard, and he’ll look to trap Kawhi’s over-eager arms on layup attempts all game long.
If Kawhi gets two or three early fouls, it’ll lessen his playability and he’ll have to take the intensity down a notch when he is on the floor. That’ll be great news for the Rockets.
Next: 3. Shoot the three accurately
Mar 2017; San Antonio, USA; Houston Rockets power forward R. Anderson (3) reacts after a shot against the Spurs in San Antonio. Mandatory Credit: USA TODAY Sports
It’s encouraging that the Rockets beat the Thunder so easily despite shooting horrendously from three, but that certainly won’t fly against the Spurs.
Believe it or not, the Houston Rockets are the worst three point shooting team of the playoffs thus far. Yep, during the first round, they shot just 28.4% from beyond the arc. Some credit goes to Oklahoma City and their admirable effort to run them off the three point line at all costs. However, Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza, and James Harden all missed plenty of great looks.
Houston found a way to win in just five games despite struggling from deep, but the Spurs will much less forgiving. Let’s hope D’Antoni had them doing plenty of shooting drills over the past week.
It seems like such an obvious objective. Making threes should be a goal of any team, especially for the team that just set the league record for most attempts in a season. However, it’ll take some mental strength and motivation to shoot and shoot accurately after their first round woes. Ryan Anderson will have to trust his history and ability rather than his 12.5% clip against OKC.
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If he, along with the rest of the team, gets it in his head that he can’t shoot well, he’ll pass up good looks. The Houston Rockets got to where they are this season by unashamedly launching threes and avoiding midrange attempts, and that’s how they’ll get even further.
If they’re going to beat the mighty Spurs, they’re going to have to do it without forsaking their identity. The Rockets have to shoot threes and make threes. They’ve proven they can do that as well as anybody, so it’ll just come down to their mindset along with a little bit of improved luck.
All things considered, the series is very winnable for Houston. Playing at a fast pace, getting other teams in foul trouble, and making threes are things the Rockets have done since the start of the season. Now shouldn’t be any different.
The showdown starts tomorrow night, and the Rockets should be ready for the challenge. It’ll take them giving the Spurs everything they’ve got to win, but that shouldn’t stop them.